BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 9, 2010
A few years ago, the Mexican literary magazine Letras Libres asked me to write an essay about major trends in the last decade of American literature. The more I thought about what such trends might be, the less convinced I became that there even was such a thing as “American literature” anymore. The books that had interested me most in the late 1990s and early 2000s were by writers who were emigrants or members of minority ethnic groups: Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Nathan Englander. Other than the language in which they write, is there anything that unites this group of global souls—all of whom have spent long periods of their lives living in places other than the United States—as definably American? And they might well have more in common with other international writers of their generation—Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami—than with earlier-generation “American” writers such as Roth or Updike.
So I was surprised to find Smith (a British writer of Caribbean descent who lives partly in the United States) pronouncing a strangely antiquated definition of American writing in her introduction to Best European Fiction 2010, a new anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. “It seems old-fashioned to speak of a ‘Continental’ or specifically ‘European’ style,” Smith (correctly) begins, but she continues: “If the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?” The differences, she argues, go beyond the “obvious matter of foreign names and places.” European fiction shows “a strong tendency towards the metafictional”; an interest in magic realism (one writer enjoys a fantasy breakfast with Murakami; another imagines that Gustav Klimt has 14 illegitimate sons all named Gustav); and an “epigraphic, disjointed structure” featuring abrupt endings. These stories, she concludes, “seem to come from a different family than those long anecdotes ending in epiphany, popularized by O. Henry.” And these writers’ models are not O. Henry or Hemingway, but Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kafka, Sebald.
O. Henry! When was the last time you saw a reference to him in a contemporary American short story—or anywhere else? What struck me about Smith’s description of this supposedly European style was how well it applies to new American writing. Today, the greatest remaining practitioners of the traditional, linear short story Smith seems to be invoking are Alice Munro and William Trevor—neither of whom is American. (She’s Canadian, he’s Irish.) Meanwhile, in American fiction, the kind of fragmentary, fantastic writing that was once experimental has now become common, thanks to the influence of literary journals such as McSweeney’s (as I once argued in Slate). Barth and Barthelme—both of whom are American—are most definitely among the progenitors of this work, but Murakami and Houellebecq are its current patron saints. Kafka’s influence, of course, is a given everywhere, but Sebald was far more popular in England and the United States than among his compatriots on the Continent.
Reading my way through Hemon’s book—a handsome collection of 35 stories, one from nearly every major European country or language group (Ireland, for instance, is represented twice, with one story originally in English and another in Irish), mostly by writers born in the 1960s and 1970s—I was surprised by how familiar the work felt. In his own introduction, Hemon complains that the “American reader seems to be largely disengaged from literatures in other languages, which many see as yet another symptom of culturally catastrophic American isolationism.” There’s no doubt that there is very little market in America for works in translation. Yet this has hardly isolated the American reader, or the American writer: the currents of influence flow freely in both directions—as this anthology demonstrates. Julian Gough’s “The Orphan and the Mob” takes place in a distinctly Irish setting, but the broad, bawdy lines of its satire come from a tradition that goes back to Tristram Shandy (Irish/English) and continues in the work of Philip Roth. The romantic drama of Steinar Bragi’s “The Sky Over Thingvellir” (Iceland) reads like Updike crossed with Umberto Eco. Naja Marie Aidt’s “Bulbjerg” (Denmark) has an uncanny masculine anger and violence that we also see in Raymond Carver or Wells Tower.
There’s something a little bit ridiculous about continuing to use nationality as a primary label for writers now that literary culture has gone truly global. The writers in Hemon’s book work in dozens of different languages, but they share a similar sensibility—a sensibility that might once have been called “Continental” or “European” but is now simply literary, melding international influences in a kind of cultural fusion. And this sensibility, which does indeed include elements of magic realism (not a European invention) and metafiction (ditto), will be easily recognizable to anyone who has recently picked up The New Yorker. As Smith also writes, again correctly: “Good writing cannot permit itself to be contained within checkpoints and borders.”
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.